Ayden Keating, like a lot of 10-year-olds, loves basketball.

“He absolutely loves it,” Ryan Keating, Ayden’s dad, said. “He doesn’t dribble or anything like that, but he can shoot it and he does really good. We have a basketball goal in our back yard. He loves playing on it.”

Ayden also has Down Syndrome, but that won’t be a barrier to playing basketball on a team, thanks to a Unified Sports program starting up through Nixa Parks & Recreation.

“I wanted to get something started for children with special needs, a little basketball team or something like that,” Ryan Keating said. “I put the word out to some parents I know that have kids with special needs and they mentioned Unified Sports. So I looked into it, brought it to Matt and that was it.”

Unified Sports, a part of Special Olympics, is an inclusive program that combines individuals with intellectual disabilities and individuals without intellectual disabilities on a sports team for training in competition. Special Olympics Missouri offers 21 Olympic-type sports divisioned by age and ability and every sport has the capability of being structured for Unified Sports if there’s interest.

Keating and the Nixa Parks Department are definitely hoping there’s an interest in Nixa.

“It just falls right in line with what we do,” Nixa Parks & Recreation Director Matt Crouse said. “We’re already offering sports and things like that in the community, so this is just another element.”

Registration for Unified Sports basketball will start in a few weeks, with practices starting in late September or early October. Games will be played in November and December, though the season might run into January. Crouse said they’re looking for players ranging in age from 8-16.

The team will practice at the X Center and will play at least one game there along with traveling to other cities to play. Many Unified Sports programs are offered through the schools, so what Nixa is doing is a little bit different, but not unique.

“It’s another opportunity for children with special needs to get out there and be a part of sports,” Crouse said. “We never stop them. We always welcome them in, but this will be a team of like individuals all playing together. The nice part is Ozark, Republic and Springfield all have some teams, so we’ll be able to play those 

teams. We’re working on a small season for them to play.”

This program, like most at the X Center, will rely on parent coaches, with paras there to help the athletes, as they prepare to play games. Competition, though, isn’t the most important part of Unified Sports.

“It’s really about that social interaction, being out there to kind of mainstream everything,” Crouse said. “These parents and these kids want to be involved and this just gives them more of an opportunity to do so.”

Keating can tell you from experience what that does for a child with special needs.

“Social interaction means more to kids with autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy than anything you can think of,” he said. “Social interaction means more to them than it does anyone else. That’s the most important thing.”

Families interested in Unified Sports are encouraged to contact Crouse at (417) 725-5486, or email mcrouse@nixaparks.com. He said he’s unsure how many families will want to participate in the program, but he’s hoping for at least one team, or about 10 kids.

“Right now we’re just hoping that people are willing to get involved, whether they’re wanting to volunteer, coach or have a child that would benefit from this program. We want their involvement,” Crouse said. “Our big thing is we’ll work to accommodate all the kids who want to be involved and keep them going. As this continues to bolster and to flourish, hopefully, the plan is to add some more sports besides basketball. If we offer bowling, bocce ball or track and field down the road, now we’re offering something for everybody.”

That would be a dream come true for the Keatings.

“Being a parent of a kid with special needs, I wanted him to be on a team and there weren’t many opportunities like that in Nixa. Now there is,” Keating said. “There are a lot of parents that live in Nixa that are very excited about this. They’re extremely happy. They want to see it happen. Just knowing there are parents out there that are getting excited about this, that definitely makes me feel good.”

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